ATLANTA - A federal judge sentenced three former Atlanta police officers to prison Tuesday for their part in a botched drug raid that ended with the death of an elderly woman in a hail of gunfire.
Jason R. Smith, Gregg Junnier and Arthur Tesler received sentences ranging from five years to 10. Kathryn Johnston, 92, was killed by police gunfire during the 2006 raid at her home.
After receiving an incorrect tip from a known drug dealer, police used a "no-knock" warrant to enter Johnston's house to look for drugs. As they tried to break in, Johnston fired a single shot through the door with a rusty revolver and the officers fired 39 bullets in return. Prosecutors say officers found no drugs inside the house and tried to cover up the mistake by planting baggies of marijuana.
U.S. District Judge Julie E. Carnes sentenced Smith to 10 years in federal prison. She sentenced Junnier to six years and Tesler to five.
Prosecutors lowered their recommended sentences for Junnier, 42, and Smith, 36. They asked for about 10 years for Smith and five or six years for Junnier because they said the men cooperated with authorities. They did not, however, lower their recommended sentence - about 10 years - for Tesler, 42.
The judge said Tuesday she agreed that Smith should have the longest sentence because he provided false information in a sworn statement to secure the no-knock warrant and participated extensively in a cover-up after the incident.
Junnier, the senior of the three, played the biggest role in an ongoing and systematic violation of rules that eventually led to Johnston's death on Nov. 21, 2006, Carnes said. She said she had some reservations about the prosecution's generosity toward Junnier, which was based on the fact that he told the truth first and cooperated extensively with the government. But she decided to follow prosecution guidelines and give him a substantial reduction.
The judge said Tesler was a "minor participant overall" and lowered his sentence to five years. She said the government's recommendations for him were "unduly harsh."
All the men will receive credit for time already served and will get three years supervised release after they serve their sentences. Carnes also ordered them to split the cost of reimbursing Johnston's estate $8,180 for funeral and burial expenses.
U.S. attorney David Nahmias said after the hearing that the incident has had two positive outcomes. First, it led Atlanta police to reform training and supervision and to revamp their narcotics unit. Second, the sentences send a "strong message" to other police officers who might be tempted to break the law.
The Rev. Markel Hutchins, spokesman for Johnston's family, spoke by telephone to her niece and closest living relative, Sarah Dozier, 76, of Atlanta after the sentencing. "She certainly breathed a sigh of relief that there is nearly some resolution, particularly with regard to these officers," he said.
Hutchins said Dozier was sympathetic to the officers' families because she believes they were victims as well. "Her aspiration has always been justice and not a sense of revenge," he said.
The three men earlier had each pleaded guilty to the federal charge of conspiring to violate Johnston's civil rights.
Smith and Junnier also pleaded guilty to state charges, including manslaughter. They are set to be sentenced on those charges next month. Under their plea agreements, their state sentences will be served concurrently with their federal punishment.
Tesler was sentenced in May to four and a half years in prison on a state charge for lying to FBI agents, but that conviction was overturned on appeal last month.
Tesler, who did not fire a shot, was in Johnston's back yard when plainclothes officers burst in through the front door.
Carnes on Monday heard emotional, often tearful, testimony from the three former officers and their friends and family. She said she was touched by the "wrenching" stories and believes all three are good men who used bad judgment. She said she thinks they will be able to live good lives and redeem themselves after serving their sentences.
Lawyers for all three men said they had hoped for lesser sentences but praised the judge for weighing the facts in the case.
"There are no winners in this case," said Smith's attorney, John Garland. "There are only losers."